JSRP Paper 6

Title:  Local Understandings and Experiences of Transitional Justice: a review of the evidence

Author:  Anna Macdonald

Date: July 2013

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Scope and purpose

  • Since the late 1980s, ‘transitional justice’ (TJ) principles and practices have gradually become normalised in international relations diplomacy and international development policy and yet we know very little about how transitional justice interventions are experienced locally, i.e. at the sub-state, community and individual level. This review sets out to examine and interrogate the extant literature on the local effects of transitional justice debates and processes.
  • The review is discursive rather than conclusive and does not seek to impose a summary judgment on whether transitional justice ‘works’ or not. 


  • The evidence review uses a rigorous bibliographic search methodology to identify existing literature that includes ‘local-level’ empirical data. Three searches were conducted: a systematic database-driven search, a snowball search and a peer-led search. 
  • The literature yielded from the searches was ‘graded’ for evidential quality and quality of analysis using the Justice and Security Research Programme’s (JSRP) grading method. Shortcomings and limitations of the search methodology are explored.  Download full annotated bibliography.

Key findings and implications for future research and policy

  • Overall knowledge of local experiences of transitional justice remains limited and fragmented. Individual pieces of research can be very high in quality but the overall picture is less satisfying.
  • Local attitudes and experiences are complex and do not conform to widely held normative assertions about what transitional justice ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to accomplish. There is important evidence on the unintended consequences of transitional justice at the local level, which should be taken into consideration by policymakers. 
  • The ‘end-user’ evidence base is made up primarily of ethnographic work and public attitude surveys. The former tend to be premised on critiquing ideas around human rights universalism and are therefore generally negative in their assessments. The latter are widely and uncritically cited in the broader literature as a ‘nod’ to the local, and this is problematic.
  • There are areas that are particularly ‘under-researched’ and on which we have very little empirical evidence: these include certain countries where TJ has been proposed e.g. Chad and Central African Republic, and thematic areas such as the gender dimensions of transitional justice, the relationship between transitional justice and the media and the experiences of perpetrators with transitional justice.
  • There is a fundamental and existential problem with transitional justice: it does not really know what it is. In part due to a lack of what development practitioners term the ‘theory of change’, it is very difficult to delineate what and who transitional justice is for. Both a serious cause and consequence has been the expansion of the concept to incorporate a huge range of objectives and claims, from formal prosecutions to broader development goals, without sufficient critical reflection. Transitional justice is an over-burdened and under-conceptualised idea.  
  • Transitional justice is a concept that is highly contested and very difficult to ‘translate’. Research design and/or policy programming must take care not to enforce concepts or impose definitions on ‘end-users’. A more productive starting point in policy or research design is to try and understand through deep contextual, cultural and linguistic engagement with ordinary people, local notions of justice or injustice and appropriate means of redress. It should be recognised that this is a fraught and delicate process and is highly vulnerable, for example, to elite manipulation and/or romantic and uncritical acceptance of ‘tradition’ in non-Western contexts. 
  • There is a need for cautious mixed-methods approaches, including comparative research at the local level. Equally, though research design must take into consideration the fact that certain transitional justice themes, including such contextually specific notions as ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’, might not be measurable or amenable to ‘standard’ definitions.
  • There is a risk of ‘over-localising’ transitional justice research at the expense of a broader understanding of the national, regional and international dynamics in any given context. How transitional justice is shaped, communicated and experienced across different levels of society is an important area of enquiry for future research and policy.